Like Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish, Lorde’s music exists in a space where genre divisions don’t much matter. Neither does the distinction between “mainstream” and “indie” (that’s a stylistic valuation rather than a corporate one: all three artists are signed to branches of Universal Music Group.) “Royals,” her breakthrough single, recorded when the New Zealander was 15, sounded like nothing else on Top 40 radio in 2012. Booming drums drown out distant synth chords, with Lorde’s multi-tracked vocals supplying the only melody. Although “Royals” was criticized for drawing its images of materialistic flexing from hip-hop videos (“Grey Goose, gold teeth, tigers in the bathroom”) without acknowledging the poverty many rappers come from, its target was a larger landscape of pop music depicting life as an endless party with no room for more difficult emotions. The song’s success played a large role in changing that landscape in the second half of the 2010s. Combining a tradition of simple rock songs about teenage rebellion with the Neptunes’ radically stripped-down hip-hop production, it flirts with both genres without falling neatly into either. “Royals” was played in almost every radio format.
Although the teen born Ella Marija Lani Yelich-O’Connor already had a major label deal, she dropped The Love Club EP directly to SoundCloud as a free download. Universal reissued it six months later, appending a cover of the Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party” to the U.S. version (The entire EP is now available only as bonus tracks on the deluxe edition of Pure Heroine.) While it shows promise, there’s a reason “Royals” was the standout. Producer Joel Little was still working out the right balance between Lorde’s vocals and the drums. “Biting Down,” which threatens to push into more abrasive territory, is also a keeper, but Pure Heroine upped the ante much further.
With “Royals” as the template, her persona on Pure Heroine combines antsiness — “Tennis Court” starts the album off with “don’t you think that it’s boring how people talk? / Making small talk with their words again / Well, I’m bored” — with the cynicism of a smart teen. “I’m kinda over getting told to throw my hands in the air” (“Team”) was a dig at the relentless cheer of Miley Cyrus’s “We Can’t Stop.” Despite her major label push, Lorde cast herself as an underdog, celebrating her devotion to her friends and looking forward to her first airplane ride. In retrospect, one wonders how much she was playing a character, but her lyrics never succumb to facile smugness. Throughout the album, she’s searching for an answer to her alienation, even if all she can do is sing about it. (She influenced a lot more glib, downtempo pop music about depression than she actually made.) While the album’s production is more elaborate than “Royals,” it’s still a fairly minimal procession of distorted synth chords, assertive percussion snaps and Lorde harmonizing with herself. Few albums suggest this much work went into selecting and mixing programmed drum sounds.
Following Pure Heroine, she selected artists and songs for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, which includes three of her songs: “Yellow Flicker Beat,” a Kanye West remix of it and a cover of Conor Oberst’s “Ladder Song.”
She then returned with Melodrama, in which the drunken excitement and eventual fallout of a party serves as a conceptual hook for the complicated rise and fall of a relationship. Inspired by house music, “Green Light,” the opening track, has soaring major piano chords and a startling key change on the chorus. A celebration of moving on, it mixes disenchantment with contagious euphoria and set the stage for Melodrama. “Sober” segues from “Green Light” into the rush of first love while wondering how long it’ll last. “Liability” is written from the perspective of the main character’s male partner. The second half revises earlier songs from a different perspective: “Sober II (Melodrama)” and “Liability (Reprise)” leans into the comedown of heartbreak.
Musically, Melodrama heads in several new directions. EDM producer Flume’s first-rate remix of “Tennis Court” might have suggested Lorde’s potential as a dance music artist. (Remixes of “Perfect Places” and “Supercut” dabbled in R&B and hip-hop, respectively.) But the album’s ambition and variety take the potential of Pure Heroine even further. Few 21-year-olds have this much perspective on their breakups.
She used the privilege of stardom to go four years between albums. Making fans wait so long for Solar Power was far more divisive than anyone would’ve expected. Lorde made the mistake of releasing its worst song, “Mood Ring,” as a single. (The title track, which was the first song to drop, isn’t much better.) The album’s hushed sound, often percussion-free and built around acoustic guitar, bears a lot of resemblance to recent releases by Phoebe Bridgers, Del Rey, Taylor Swift and Eilish. Like Swift and Del Rey, she worked with producer Jack Antonoff, who has been accused of supplying them with the same basic style.
One of the ways she spent her time after Melodrama‘s release was an off-the-Internet trip to Antarctica. That led to an embrace of nature reflected in the lyrics on Solar Power, which is her “unplugged” album other ways – the minimal soft rock arrangements suggest VH1’s programming circa the late ’90s. Despite the emphasis on mood over hooks, the songwriting sinks in with repeated listens. (Once again, her voice soars over spare backdrops.) Biting Primal Scream and George Michael, “Solar Power” strives too hard to be the “song of the summer,” but “Stoned at the Nail Salon” is a compellingly intimate spiral of anxious thought, sung over a woozy mix of guitar and electronics. The album hints at a running theme about the cultish nature of New Age woo, but it approaches the subject too subtly (on “Solar Power,” she sings “I’m kinda like a prettier Jesus,” while the video refers to the deceptively sunny horror movie Midsommar) in a manner that’s blunt but not insightful (“Mood Ring”) or actually appears to endorse the mindset. Is she joking when she sings “The sun will show us the path” or praises “psychedelic gardens in our heads”? By its second half, the lack of variety in tempos and production drags Solar Power down — it begins to suggest a collection of demos in need of a faster pace and more fleshed-out arrangements — but it’s hardly the utter disaster many fans and critics have called it. It’s more like a pleasant trip to the beach which lasts long enough to become wearying.
Shortly after the album’s release, as a fund-raising tribute to New Zealand’s indigenous people, Lorde re-recorded five Solar Power songs in Maori and released them as the Te Ao Mārama EP, with the proceeds going to two local charities.